A reader inquires:
I find your blog interesting and educational. A while ago you mentioned that there is a term for an adjective which is used not to specify a particular sort of the noun which it modifies, but rather a thing which does not meet the definition of that noun. (I've likely somewhat mangled the description of this term in trying to recall it.) For example 'polished leather' and 'red leather' are kinds of leather, but 'artificial leather' refers to things which aren't leather at all. I have tried to find the post that talked about this but I forgot what the topic was when you mentioned it. Can you please tell me the name for this?
'Artificial' in 'artificial leather' functions as an alienans adjective. It 'alienates' the sense of the noun it modifies. In the case of specifying adjectives, an FG is a G, where F is an adjective and G a noun. Thus a nagging wife is a wife, a female duck is a duck, cow's leather is leather, and a contingent truth is a truth. But if 'F' is alienans, then either an FG is not a G, or it does not follow from x's being an FG that x is a G. For example, your former wife is not your wife, a decoy duck is not a duck, artificial leather is not leather, and a relative truth is not a truth. Is an apparent heart attack a heart attack? It may or may not be. One cannot validly move from 'Jones had an apparent heart attack' to 'Jones had a heart attack.' So 'apparent' in 'apparent heart attack' is alienans.
Note that I was careful to say 'artificial' in 'artificial leather' is an alienans adjective. For it does not function as such in every context. 'Artificial' in 'artificial insemination' is not alienans: you are just as inseminated if it has come about artificially or naturally.
Two more examples of alienans adjectives that I borrow from Peter Geach: 'forged' in 'forged banknote' and 'putative in 'putative father.' If x is a forged banknote it does not follow that x is a banknote. And if x is the putative father of y, it does not follow that x is the father of y. Here is an example I got from the late Australian philosopher Barry Miller: 'negative' in 'negative growth.' If my stock portfolio is experiencing negative growth, then it is precisely not experiencing growth.
Of course, I am not suggesting that every adjective (as employed in some definite context) can be classified as either specifying or alienans. Consider the way 'mean-spirited' functions in 'mean-spirited Republican.' In most contexts, the implication is not that some Republicans are mean-spirited and some are not; the implication is that all are. To be a Republican is just to be mean-spirited. Is there a name for that sort of adjective? I don't know. But there ought to be, and if I ever work out a general theory of adjectives, I'll give it one.
Now consider 'Muslim terrorist.' A politically correct idiot might take offense at this phrase as implying that all Muslims are terrorists or even that all and only Muslims are terrorists. But no intelligent person would take it this way. If I say that Hasan is a Muslim terrorist , then the plain meaning to anyone with his head screwed on properly is that Hasan is a Muslim and a terrorist, which obviously does not imply that all Muslims are terrorists.